Cardinal William Wakefield Baum was born on November 21, 1926 in Dallas, Texas. His family moved to Kansas City when he was a young child and he began school at St. Peter’s Parochial School. He also began to serve as an altar boy at age ten.
He entered St. John’s Minor Seminary in 1940, then studied philosophy at Glennon College in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1947, he entered Kenrick Seminary, also in St. Louis.
He was ordained for the priesthood on May 12, 1951 by Archbishop Edwin V. O’Hara, Bishop of Kansas City. Following ordination, Father Baum served at St. Aloysius parish in Kansas City and taught at Avila College, St. Aloysius Academy and Glennon High School. Under the sponsorship of Bishop O’Hara and Bishop John Cody (later Cardinal Cody of Chicago), Fr. Baum undertook studies in Rome, receiving a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology at the University of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Returning to Kansas City from Rome in 1958, he served as secretary of the Diocesan Tribunal. He also taught at Avila College in Kansas City and did parish work at St. Theresa’s and St. Peter’s.
In 1960, he was appointed administrator of St. Cyril’s parish in Sugar Creek, Missouri. The following year, in April, he was named a papal chamberlain by Pope John XXIII, with the title Monsignor.
When Vatican Council II convened in 1962, Bishop Charles Helmsing of Kansas City asked Msgr. Baum to accompany him as an adviser. Msgr. Baum was also named a peritus of the Council by the Holy See and was assigned to work with the Secretariat for Christian Unity. In this capacity, he participated in drafting the Decree on Ecumenism that the Council Fathers approved in November 1964.
That same year, the U.S. bishops formed the Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, choosing Msgr. Baum as the committee’s first executive director. He served in that capacity for five years. From 1965 to 1969, he also served as a member of the Joint Working Group of representatives of the Catholic Church and World Council of Churches. From 1965-1966, he was a member of the Mixed Committee of representatives of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation.
In 1967, Msgr. Baum was appointed Chancellor of the Diocese of Kansas City; the following year, he was appointed pastor of St. James.
Pope Paul VI named Msgr. Baum as the third Bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau in February 1970. His episcopal ordination was held on April 6, 1970, and he chose “Ministry of Reconciliation,” reflecting the words of St. Paul (2 Cor. 5-18), for his episcopal motto.
The following year, the Pope appointed him an American delegate to the World Synod of Bishops at the Vatican. From 1972-1975, he also served as Chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
On March 5, 1973, Pope Paul VI appointed him Archbishop of Washington. Archbishop Baum was installed as the second resident archbishop of Washington on May 9, 1973 at the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington, DC. As Archbishop, he also served as Chancellor of The Catholic University of America.
On May 24, 1976, he was elevated to the College of Cardinals. From 1976-1979, Cardinal Baum served as Chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine. He was appointed Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education at the Vatican in 1980.
In 1990, he was named Major Penitentiary. In this role, he dealt with many confidential issues concerning matters of conscience as well as procedural matters involving indulgences. He also publicly promoted the frequent use of the Sacrament of Penance. In the early 1990s, Cardinal Baum served on a commission that drafted the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was published in 1994. During the 2000 Jubilee Year, he helped design and explain the indulgences that were offered.
He served as a member of the Congregation of Bishops, Oriental Churches, Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and Evangelization of Peoples.
Cardinal Baum retired on November 22, 2001, the day after his 75th birthday.